BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTOS BY PETER SPURRIER
Kathleen Heddle died on January 11 from cancer at age 55. She was one of the greatest women to ever row; the successes that she and rowing partner Marnie McBean achieved are unmatched. When Doctor Rowing wrote about them in 2015, Heddle characteristically deferred to McBean to talk with me about their careers. Heddle never sought the limelight; she let her oar do the talking.
*Originally published in Rowing News Volume 22.
Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle
Winners of three Olympic gold medals in the 90’s, this Canadian duo broke ground in women’s elite rowing. Before McBean and Heddle, no Canadian Open-weight woman had won a gold medal in Worlds or Olympic competition. In Barcelona in the 1992 Games, they won the pair and then doubled their gold medals by winning the eight. Switching to sculling for ‘96, they won the double and earned a bronze in the quad. Elisabeta Lipă of Romania is the only other woman to have won gold medals in three different Olympic boat classes, but McBean and Heddle are the only ones to have medaled in all six open women’s events.
The pair built upon some of the successes of the Canadian women in the 80’s. From McBean’s perspective, the challenges of her predecessors were made greater by “male coaches who weren’t always the most supportive, the pharmacology of the eastern Europeans and cultural norms that lacked understanding and respect for women in power/endurance sports.”
When the two got together in a pair in 1991 and won the Worlds in Vienna, a trip that also included a gold medal in the eight, McBean and Heddle won a medal in every event and year in which they raced together. The fiery McBean and the quietly intense Heddle formed a partnership that was unmatched on the water. “We were fortunate in that we had a great – and very professional – coach (Al Morrow), a powerful and mature group of women to train with and against, and society was just starting to embrace letting women be referred to as powerful, competitive and dynamic,” says McBean. Morrow adds, “As a 2- and 2x (and even in the 8 and 4x) McBean and Heddle were a bit of an ‘Odd Couple;’ their strength was that they were quite different in many ways and by cooperating with each other the ‘sum of the parts’ became very strong.”
Despite their success as the greatest Canadian athletes of their era, there were always battles for funding and equipment. In her early years while training, McBean managed the concessions that sold nachos and hot dogs at a minor league baseball stadium in London, Ontario, and hired her teammates to do the same. Even though her success in Barcelona ensured that she was reasonably well-funded and began to earn an income doing corporate presentations, she worked hard to raise money for the entire Canadian squad, “there is no point in being independently financially strong but part of a team that is struggling to eat.”McBean continues to work with the Canadian Olympic movement; she was one of the presenters of Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Games, and she was a team mentor with the Canadian Olympic team from 2006 – 2014 for all of the teams in that period (summer and winter), helping Canadian athletes be comfortable with the social and cultural aspects that are unique to the Olympic games and embracing their confidence and ambition in that environment. She worked for the last five Games to ensure the best Canadian performance possible by preparing athletes emotionally and psychologically. Heddle has retired to a life out of the public spotlight, but the standard that this pair set is unprecedented.